Paying the debate tax: Fox News' debate caps are costing candidates big time -- in both money and dignity

Chris Christie is spending on national TV ads in mid-summer, just to keep his name in the mix. Such is the price

By Jim Newell

Published July 27, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

Chris Christie         (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)
Chris Christie (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

Chris Christie should make the first Republican presidential debate in Cleveland. Not because he's doing "well." He launched his presidential candidacy some weeks ago and hasn't been heard from since. But he has enough name recognition to retain 2.8 percent support in an average of the most recent national polls.

That's good enough for ninth position, but it only leaves him a 1 percent cushion atop both Rick Perry and John Kasich, who are neck-and-neck for the final slot. Perry got plenty of favorable press recently for picking a fight with Donald Trump, and John Kasich just launched his candidacy last week. A modest boost from both of them, or a modest fall for Christie, could leave him sidelined with Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and all the other losers at the kids' table. (Not that it would be the end of the world!)

So Christie has gone ahead and spent a little money to "help buttress his standings," the New York Times reports. Christie's campaign has purchased $250,000 worth of ads to air on Fox News, beginning last Friday and running through Aug. 9.

A couple of minor observations to start.

Who the hell is running Chris Christie's super PAC? That's the entity that has a tidy $11 million to work with, whereas Christie's official campaign is just getting started. Wouldn't it be wiser for the super PAC to make these "buttressing" expenditures? Sure, the two entities can't "legally" coordinate, but ... they can probably just coordinate and the FEC will do nothing, because our nation is a joke. Come on. I should be running these things, sheesh.

Oh, and the people who run Fox News are geniuses. What did they get by instituting these caps? Not just constant appearances from the candidates themselves in their desperate quests for exposure, but now feedback in the form of actual money, too. Chris Christie is forking over 250-large to Fox News in ad revenue, for the purpose of securing a dais onstage during Donald Trump's 90-minute monologue in Cleveland. He probably will not be the last candidate to make the last such purchase, and there will be more and more capped debates forthcoming.

More broadly, though, consider what's happening here. A candidate who will not have that much official campaign money is having to make a national ad buy on Fox News in the middle of summer 2015. What are his other options? He could play with power tools like another oxygen-deprived candidate, Rand Paul, has been doing. He could subject himself to embarrassing questions with any media outlet who'll take him, like Rick Santorum. He could deploy the famous campaign move of pretending to stop campaigning, as Bobby Jindal has done. He could pick a fight with Donald Trump, or make a point of not picking a fight with Donald Trump.

Most of the candidates cheered the elimination of this year's Iowa straw poll, a traditional mid-summer means of culling the field that recently stopped serving as an accurate predictor of grass-roots organizing ability. As Mike Huckabee explained his decision not to participate -- before the Iowa GOP killed the thing altogether -- the Iowa straw poll served as a tax on the lower-tier candidates: They would be forced to exhaust their modest resources for the straw poll, while the well-funded, establishment candidates didn't even bother contending.

The Iowa straw poll tax has been eliminated and replaced by the debate tax. It's spent either directly from campaign war chests, in Christie's case, or in various other degradations of dignity or time in New York's Fox News studios instead of in Iowa or New Hampshire. I can see why the debate caps would upset them. On the other hand, not everyone gets to be president!

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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